Unlike cities in Europe, New York doesn’t much go in for commemorating culturally significant sites from the recent past. No shining plaques where Bob Dylan or Henry James lived, or even where CBGB was, possibly the most important venue in modern music. Maybe the city will get around to it, once the pace slows down a little and we have more time to reflect, but these days there’s more than enough going on.
One exception is Katz’s Delicatessen. An old warhorse from the heyday of the Jewish Lower East Side (see also: Schimmel’s Knishes, Russ & Daughters, etc.) it specializes in hot dogs, pastrami, various processed (although kosher, of course) meats, with a more or less unchanged menu since the nineteenth century. The ticketing system is bizarre (don’t lose your meal ticket!) and the food is kind of delicious and kind of gross, in that simultaneous way that fast food is – even fast food from the decades before Ray Kroc joined McDonalds.
But Katz’s many years of faithful neighborhood service were all swept aside in 1989, when it became the site of one of New York’s most celebrated cinematic events: Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. The scene was added when it became clear that the character of Sally didn’t have enough going on in the movie, except to be the recipient of Billy Crystal’s eventual interest. Screenwriter Nora Ephron spitballed the scene out with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, but the iconic punchline, ‘I’ll have what she’s having,’ was all Billy Crystal.
The elderly actress who delivered it was the mother of director Rob Reiner – like the fine Jewish boy he is, he gave his beloved mother one of the most famous movie lines of all time. Apart from the shiksa Ryan at the scene’s bullseye, to whom all the Jews around her were giving some serious side-eye—this was a classic made-in-New York moment, blending old-school culture, sex appeal and a gritty downtown locale, cementing Katz’s place in this city’s heart for years to come.
Not content with that though, Katz’s have a hung a sign above the infamous booth. “Where Harry met Sally,” it says, “hope you have what she had! Enjoy!” This year, Katz’s celebrates their 125th anniversary, publishing a book to commemorate their history. And in a nod to the neighborhood’s burgeoning artistic culture, Katz’s has opened up a gallery space next door displaying the works of local artists on a rotating basis. Included in the first group were Kenzo Minami, who has collaborated on various projects with GrandLife in the past, and Baron Von Fancy, who painted Meg Ryan’s classic line in his signature typeface along one wall of the gallery. Next month’s roster includes Levi Mandel and Ricky Powell, among others. These days in New York, even delis open since 1888 are in the “experience” business.
– Tom Leveritt